I never forgot watching I Know My First Name is Steven, a 1989 tv movie chronicling the true story of a boy kidnapped at 7 years old by a stranger, then abused for the next 7 years. Steven’s story brought to life so many of my worst fears and represented stranger danger in my mind for years to come. I knew to watch out for strangers following me home from school and people I didn’t know offering me candy. I obediently followed the buddy system at camp, protecting myself from a bear or some stranger in the bushes. Little did I know that the real threats around me were most likely to come from sources I trusted; camp counselors, neighbors, relatives, coaches, ministers, and friends.
Fears and Insecurities
Today, I still get the chills when I see those old style vans with the sliding doors, imagining the handles missing from the insides. I practically run in and out of roadside rest areas at night. When my husband is out of town, I sleep with a light on. So, I absolutely get the instinctual fear about predators invading public restrooms. I feel the vulnerability, the exposure, the insecurity too. I refuse to allow that fear of the boogeyman control me when it comes to equal access bathrooms.
We Need to Take Threats of Abuse Seriously
Threats of violence and abuse are real, most especially for women, children, and other vulnerable populations, including trans* individuals. We should not dismiss or undermine them. In fact, I applaud us talking about sexual abuse more openly and more often. Let’s make sure we are focusing on real dangers, so they can be properly addressed. When it comes to equal access bathrooms, let’s not get caught up in our boogeyman fears, though, expending all of our energy on hypothetical threats and ignoring the larger picture. This quote from Contexts.org helps make the picture clearer:
“It is not to be suggested that sexual assault is not a serious and troubling real issue; rather, such assaults rarely occur in public restrooms and no cities or states that have passed transgender rights legislation have witnessed increases in sexual assaults in public restrooms after the laws have gone into effect. Raising the specter of the sexual predator in debates around transgender rights should be unmasked for the multiple ways it can perpetuate gender inequality. Under the guise of “protecting” women, critics reproduce ideas about their weakness, depict males as assailants, and work to deny rights to transgender people. Moreover, they suggest that there should be a hierarchy of rights in which cisgender women and children are more deserving of protections than transgender people.”
What are We Really Afraid of?
At the core of the debate around trans* accessible bathrooms (or “bathroom bills”) seems to be a fear of men. Many people say they don’t believe that trans* individuals are predators, but they fear cis (heterosexual) men who will take advantage of accessibility to prey on women. There seems to be little concern over trans* men using men’s restrooms, even though the wrong genitals might be present.
We’re really afraid of living in a patriarchal society where women are routinely objectified, attacked, abused, and overpowered physically and socially – primarily by men. We’re afraid of a sense of entitlement that men have around women’s bodies. We’re scared because at our core we know that social norms and laws often keep women and children vulnerable.
It’s really difficult to express all of that and to figure out how to address a problem of such magnitude. So, we grasp onto something easily identifiable, fighting a minor fight we feel we can win; even if it feeds and empowers the real enemy we should be fighting.
The Realities of Equal Access
Supporting equal access to restrooms doesn’t have to indicate that you believe gender identity is separate from someone’s physical sex. Knowing that someone with the genitals of the opposite sex is in the bathroom with you might make you uncomfortable, and that’s ok. Rest assured that many places in the United States already have equal access bathrooms and it’s likely that you’ve shared a bathroom with someone from the trans* community without evening knowing it. Their presence hasn’t reduced your security, but it’s very likely that it has increased theirs.
It’s also important to note that laws currently exist to protect us from sexual predators in public restrooms. If a man enters a woman’s restroom or a woman enters a men’s restroom and harasses or attacks individuals or otherwise breaks the law, they can be arrested and prosecuted – no matter their gender identity. A trans* individual wants to blend in and enjoy privacy and safety, the same as you and I. It is very unlikely that anyone would expose themselves in a public changing area or bathroom when their greatest desire is to blend in.
I found this very helpful from Lambda Legal:
Q: Don’t unisex bathrooms leave women more vulnerable to being harassed or attacked by men than gender-segregated bathrooms do?
This argument is based on a myth: There is no evidence that gender-segregated bathrooms are “safer” for cisgender women than unisex bathrooms. And besides, there are laws protecting people from criminal conduct in public restrooms. If anything, a concern for safety weighs in favor of bathroom accessibility. Transgender people face a uniquely high degree of harassment—53% of 6,450 transgender people reported being harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation in a recent survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
In Mathis v. Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, Colorado’s Division of Civil Rights found that barring transgender students from gender-segregated bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity may out an individual as transgender and invite the very harassment that a school or employer claims to want to prevent. Providing individual bathrooms can be a solution for dealing with these concerns, as long as transgender people are not required to use them.
Where We are Most Vulnerable
I addressed some sobering realities about sexual abuse in March in my post We Need to Talk About Sexual Abuse. The reality of abuse is that our children are most likely to be abused my someone they know. We can teach them about stranger danger, but we need to be honest with ourselves about the biggest threats to women and children. When we do this, we can wrangle our fears into something productive.
- 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abusers. 1
- Approximately 30% of children who are sexually abused are abused by family members. 1
- The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. 1
- Of those molesting a child under six, 50% were family members. 1
- Family members also accounted for 23% of those abusing children ages 12 to 17. 1
- 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. 2
- More than 4 million women experience physical assault and rape by their partners. 2
- In 2 out of 3 female homicide cases, females are killed by a family member or intimate partner. 2
- About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date. 3
- Acquaintance rape is much more prevalent than stranger rape. In a study published by the Department of Justice, 82% of the victims were raped by someone they knew (acquaintance/friend, intimate, relative) 4
Let’s Harness Our Fears and Redirect That Energy
The world can be scary and uncertain. As parents, we sometimes wish we could encircle our children in our arms and protect them against all potential harm. We know we they have to interact with the world, so our instinct is to make it as safe as possible. It can feel overwhelming trying to fight all of the potential threats and we sometimes let our fear consume us.
We are not powerless, though. We have access to information and resources that can help us protect our children. This begins by understanding the realities of abuse, by talking openly about them, and by teaching bodily autonomy. It continues by focusing on the messages we are sending to boys and girls about women and by believing people when they report abuse.
When we teach our children that women are strong, intelligent, and capable, we are warriors. When we teach our children that men are vulnerable, kind, and compassionate, we are protectors.
We can protect our children and have equal access to bathrooms. It will most likely be uncomfortable and even scary, but it’s worth it. Our children – and the world – will be better for it.